Increasing milk from forage takes a whole farm approach

The Hawkens family managed to increase their average herd yield from 22 litres/ cow per day to 34.7 litres in less than a year. British Dairying finds out how they did it.

Increasing milk from forage takes a whole farm approach

The dairy unit at Penwenham Farm near Launceston in North Cornwall is run by Sharon and Guy Hawken with their four children, Chloe, Mitchell, Charlie and Benjamin. They have 300 Holstein Friesians, with low yielders milked twice a day and high yielders milked three times a day in the first 200 days. They rear their own replacements and use genomic testing, feed a high forage home-grown diet, including maize and grass silage on a multi-cut system.

In September 2022 the cows – which calve year-round - were producing an average of 22 litres/day, and the family realised they needed to improve animal health and maximise milk production from forage. “We’d reached a point where our costs were spiralling out of control and performance was poor,” explains Sharon. “We knew we should be getting more milk from our forage, but that wasn’t the only area; animal health in general wasn’t where it should have been. Fertility was a real problem, with poor conception and pregnancy rates and cows not showing physical heats.”

The Hawkens were introduced to Ruminant Specialist, Marc Harvey, who works for Advanced Ruminant Nutrition (pictured in the centre). Marc has a background in managing large herds in Saudi Arabia and has a rigorous whole farm approach to herd management. “Marc was keen to understand the herd right from the offset, and we didn’t adjust anything until he’d done a thorough audit of the cows,” Sharon says. 

“He understood that any investments have to be carefully considered, and crucially that every farm and their herds are different. So he really interrogated the data and got to know how the cows were behaving and what the main issues were on farm.” Following this, Marc identified some areas for improvement. “Initially we could see from the data that there was a number of issues - poor rumen function and efficiency, lameness, fertility issues, spiralling feed costs and poor performance output,” says Marc. “However, what was important was to set both long and short-term goals for the herd. We spent some time regularly walking the cows, learning how the farm worked on a day-to-day basis, so that we could pick out the major problems and create a long-term plan to improve performance.”

Marc looked at rumen function and efficiency, as one of the main strengths of the unit is the high quality forage produced - and that was key to turning performance around. “We stripped the diet back to basics and balanced the diet to improve dry matter intake, getting as much forage into the cows as possible,” he says. In doing so, the team cut the diet cost by almost 25%. The team then focused on udder health and identifying those with a high somatic cell count. The worked closely with the farm vets to correctly identify which pathogens were causing mastitis issues and provide appropriate treatment.  They also worked with the vets to improve lameness on farm and select a suitably qualified foot trimmer. This really started to make a difference in lameness prevention, with therapeutic trimming rather than just treating lame cows. Alongside this, Marc set up regular routines for mobility scoring the cows, focusing on picking out score one and two cows and not just those that were visibly lame. The result - a positive effect on cow mobility and subsequent milk production.  The transition period was the next focus for the team; cow comfort as well as nutritional changes made all the difference here. Previously, the dry cows were fed a partial dietary cation to anion difference diet (DCAD) but it wasn’t being properly managed, leading to a poor transition and subsequent metabolic issues. Marc introduced a controlled diet rather than a high energy diet, utilising the protein from the grass silage, maize and straw. He also introduced a calcium binder - X-Zelit, which is fed two weeks prior to calving.  It’s a simple system and the unit is seeing some fantastic results, with transition disease and associated metabolic issues pretty much non-existent, he says.  

Liz Newman, Heifer Rearing Specialist at ARN, works with Marc on the youngstock nutrition. “The Hawken family work hard to ensure their heifers get every opportunity to reach their potential and join the herd strong and healthy, ready to produce milk for many lactations,” says Liz. “They use a quality skim-based powder including a high spec vitamin and mineral pack, which ensures good digestion and supplies the calf with the nutrition it needs to grow and support a strong  immune system. 

“This is balanced with a high protein quality nut to drive rumen development, as well as structural growth. Their attention to detail and good protocols, alongside the right nutrition, ensures heifers grow well at each stage and reduce the risks of growth checks.” Overall, the main benefit has been better utilising forage in the diet, as it has had a huge effect on cow health, rumen efficiency and fertility. Working with a veterinary nutritionist alongside Marc and Liz, the family plans to make further gains in the coming year, with the confidence make changes and invest in the right areas. 

“Farmers are under a huge amount of pressure with a low milk price, so it’s important to prioritise what is going to drive the most gains and maximise returns on investment,” says Marc. “The Hawkens are currently in the process of expanding their dairy buildings to increase cow comfort. This will enable them to go from twice to three times milking a day. They have had the confidence to do that because our team approach has already made a difference on farm, and we continually prioritise and drive efficiencies.”


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